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Film and the Arts

February '23 Digital Week II

4K/UHD Release of the Week 
Three Colors Trilogy 
(Criterion Collection)
Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy, made in 1993 and 1994 and based on the colors of the French flag, varies wildly in quality—austere Blue, clumsy White, occasionally affecting Red—with each starring a then-young French/Swiss actress (Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Irene Jacob).
I prefer Kieslowski’s Polish films, which culminated in the awe-inspiring Decalogue; contrarily, his airy, elliptical French films come off as aesthetic and dramatic misfires. The one memorable constant is Kieslowski compatriot and composer Zbigniew Peisner’s varied scores. The Criterion Collection, of course, gives the trilogy the deluxe treatment, from the splendidly grainy UHD visuals to the plethora of extras (video essays/featurettes/interviews on each film and early Kieslowski shorts on each disc).
In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
Una vita difficile 
(Rialto Films/Film Forum)
Italian director Dino Risi’s adventurous 1960 comedy-drama tells the compellingly complex story of post-WWII Italian history through the on-again, off-again relationship of a progressive writer Silvio and the beautiful Elena, whom he meets while hiding from the Nazis. They fall in love, get separated, find each other, get married, break up, get back together, and generally act like their fellow Italians do in the volatile political, social, class and economic upheavals of that era.
It never truly coheres, almost inevitably, because so much is going on—preceding this splendid restoration, there are many unnecessary intro titles that try to explain what happens in the next two hours—but Alberto Sordi is a terrific Silvio, the magnificent Lea Massari is a transcendent Elena, and Risi has made a challenging examination of his native country’s psyche.
Full Time 
(Music Box Films)
Reminiscent of the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Benoit Jacquot’s A Single Girl, Éric Gravel’s film breathlessly follows harried single mother Julie, who is juggling her high-stress position as head chambermaid at a top Parisian hotel with taking care of her children, literally running from home to work and back, all the while looking for a betterm less harried place of employment.
Like those two previous films, Gravel’s drama takes lazy shortcuts and ends up being a superficial showcase—as for both Marian Cotillard and Virginie Ledoyen—for Laure Calamy, who gives a spectacular but showy performance, brilliant in spots but undercut by her director’s singlemindedness.
Let It Be Morning 
(Cohen Media)
As in earlier films such as his breakthrough, The Band’s Visit, writer-director Eran Kolirin has made another audacious film skirting the line between black comedy and outright tragedy; Palestinian-born Israeli citizen Sami, returning to his hometown from Jerusalem for his brother’s wedding—and where he reunites with his estranged wife Mira, whom he’s cheating on with a colleague—finds himself trapped when the military authorities suddenly begin building a wall as part of a local blockade.
As usual, Kolirin incisively finds humor and horror in a real but patently absurd situation, which doubles as a pointed satire of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The superlative cast is led by Alex Bacri as the put-upon Sami and Juna Suleiman as the spirited Mira.
The Locksmith 
(Screen Media)
This routine crime thriller about a locksmith named Miller who, after getting out of prison for a robbery in which his best friend was killed by a corrupt cop, tries to make amends by agreeing to a risky robbery at the behest of his dead friend’s sister April. The twists and turns of Joe Russo and Chris LaMont’s script are predictable from the get-go, and despite a game cast led by Ryan Philippe (Miller), Kate Bosworth (Miller’s ex, Beth, who’s also a detective), Ving Rhames (Miller’s best bud) and Gabriela Quezada (April), director Nicolas Harvard is unable to make this more than a pale imitation of better genre pictures.
Love in the Time of Fentanyl 
(ITVS/Lost Time Media/Castle Mountain Media)
When the drug crisis overwhelmed Vancouver—with more people fatally overdosing than ever—a special clinic, the Overdose Prevention Society, opened to help addicts with supervised dosages to mitigate fatalities.
Director Colin Askey chronicles the difficulties but ultimate triumphs of the clinic’s staff—comprising former and current drug users—who do whatever they can to help others in this important report from the front lines of a war that might be winnable with the right soldiers.
The Student 
(Capelight Pictures)
This cogent if familiar character study of Russian sociology student  Lera, who, as Gerda, becomes a stripper to continue her studies of ordinary people as well as earn needed extra money, is too dour, set as it is in a bleak environment that’s underscored in nearly every shot.
Anastasiya Krasovskaya gives an intense portrayal of Lera/Gerda, who lives with her single mother, but despite director-writer Natalya Kudryashova’s obvious knowledge of this milieu, her film is too one-note to be a truly effective psychological portrait. 

February '23 Digital Week I

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
Remember This 
(Abramorama/PBS Great Performances)
This riveting film, from the play by Clark Young and Derek Goldman, introduces Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance during WWII, who went to France, London and the U.S. to give eyewitness testimony of how Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and a nearby concentration camp lived…and died.
Out of this rich dramatic ore, directors Goldman and Jeff Hutchens have fashioned a breathless, emotional 90-minute journey, given more depth by Hutchens’ illuminating B&W photography. And David Strathairn’s unforgettable, physically imposing performance as Karski is simply jaw-dropping to watch—and listen to: he not only voices Karski but dozens of other characters, from Nazis and Polish Jewish leaders to FDR.
The Son 
(Sony Classics)
Florian Zeller’s heavy-handed plays The Height of the Storm, The Father, and The Son have begotten, from the latter two so far, equally ponderous films adapted and directed by Zeller himself. As small-scale family dramas go, they have juicy roles for his casts (Anthony Hopkins won the best actor Oscar two years ago for The Father)—too bad the latest, The Son, shows Zeller at his most ham-fisted.
A study of a divorced couple whose teenage son deals with depression and suicidal thoughts, The Son is superficial and often risible, forcing able actors (Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby) and the less-than-able Zen McGrath to clench their jaws and grit their teeth as they dive into Zeller’s mechanical melodramatics.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Bones and All 
(Warner Bros)
Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 breakthrough, Call Me By Your Name, featured breakout star Timothee Chalamet—and now the pair reunites for a young-adult cannibalistic love story (yes, you read that right).
But while Guadagnino spends two-plus hours desperately trying to make this romance even more bizarre with his visual flourishes, Chalamet and the extraordinary Taylor Russell actually make us care about them—through intelligent, subtle acting. The film looks splendid on Blu; extras are several short making-of featurettes.
Carly Simon—Live at Grand Central 
(Arista Records)
This 1995 concert—during rush hour for a surprised bunch of New York commuters—was originally shown on the Lifetime network but now gets its first hi-def release. It’s a terrific hour-plus of Carly Simon in great voice and enjoying herself in front of an audience (she’s often had notorious stage fright) backed by a crack band and terrific backup singers.
The selection leans a bit much on her then-current album Letters Never Sent—which does include her touching goodbye to her mom, “Like a River”—but there are lots of hits from “Anticipation” to “Let the River Run,” along with her most memorable melody, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” But the hi-def presentation is a missed opportunity: the video looks like upscaled videotape and the audio, while crisp and clear, is only stereo—sadly, there’s no surround-sound option.
The Dante Project 
(Opus Arte)
Choreographer Wayne McGregor’s latest ballet, based on Dante’s trilogy, is fantastically visceral, thanks to the marvelously elastic, lithe movements of London’s Royal Ballet dancers, led by the incredible Edward Watson, Gary Avis and Sarah Lamb.
Thomas Ades’ score consolidates his early avant-garde leanings with his later sophistication, making this a complete visual and aural success. Both the hi-def video and audio are topnotch; lone extra is a making-of featurette with interviews with McGregor and dramaturg Uzma Hameed.
DVD Release of the Week
My Imaginary Country 
(Icarus Films)
Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, who has chronicled his country’s history in memorable documentaries for several decades, adds to that glorious run of films with his latest, a look at the massive 2019-20 protests as millions swarmed the streets of Chile’s capital, Santiago, hoping for a return to the democracy that was lost following the 1973 Pinochet coup.
With stirring footage shot on location by participants during the police crackdown, Guzmán also interviews several brave women who took part in the protests, placing them in their proper historical context. Guzmán, who was tortured by the Pinochet regime (and whose three-part The Battle of Chile stands as one of the great political documentaries ever made), once again insightfully shows history repeating itself—but this time possibly for the better. 
CD Release of the Week 
Herbert Howells—Piano Music, Volume 2 
English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is remembered for his choral works, notably the masterly Hymnus Paradisi, which he wrote after the death of his nine-year-old son. But he also composed two first-rate piano concertos, and his solo piano music has a jaunty air that’s surprising coming from someone who wrote dour church music.
This excellent chronological disc, played with zest by pianist Matthew Schellhorn, alternates between many attractive miniatures with weightier works like Howells' 1971 Sonatina. 

Off-Broadway Review: "Colin Quinn—Small Talk"

Colin Quinn—Small Talk
Written and performed by Colin Quinn; directed by James Fauvell
Performances through February 11, 2023
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, New York, NY
Colin Quinn—Small Talk (photo: Monique Carboni)
For several years, sharp-witted comedian Colin Quinn—probably best-known to comedy fans for his stint as "Weekend Update" anchor on Saturday Night Live from 1998 to 2000—has been performing regularly both on and off Broadway. After his show The Last Best Hope in fall 2021 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, the fast-talking Brooklyn comic returns there for his latest, Colin Quinn—Small Talk, in which he amusingly discusses the seemingly lost art of people introducing themselves to and engaging with others through innocuous patter. As always with Quinn, there are more misses than hits, but his sardonic approach does yield some comic insights.
Although Quinn trods a lot of ground in his 70-minute routine—which encompasses his maxim that, “between phones, air pods and self-checkout, small talk is down 87 percent”—it’s on the periphery that he finds his cleverest material. In one routine, he affirms that Human Resources is the “law enforcement arm of the office” and soon there will be no more series like Law and Order or CSI on TV; instead, “every cop show is going to be H.R.: ‘There are two separate but very important groups in every office—the sexist pigs and those who are assigned to stop them. These are their stories.’”
There’s also his offbeat spins on things we all take for granted. Discussing social media, he notes that schizophrenics suffer their whole lives with imaginary voices in their heads and now all of us have our own “voices,” all on our devices: “You carry two billion peoples’ personalities with you at all times.” His solution? “If you post more than 5 times a day you should be in a 72-hour psychiatric hold.”
He has quick fixes for our country’s various ills, including immigration (those who want to live here must pick someone already here no one likes and send them to their old country as a one-for-one trade), abortion (“the only people that should weigh in on abortion are mothers disappointed in how their adult children turned out—they’ve seen the agony and the ecstasy”) and gun control (“When people come in to buy a gun, no waiting period but first give us three references. Then we FaceTime those people and go, ‘Hey, your friend Joe Schmo wants to buy a gun,’ and if they go, ‘Really?!’ They’re not getting a gun.”)
Quinn also, somewhat halfheartedly, equates the right and the left as cultish, the wingnuts as a “combination David Koresh compound meets Jimmy Buffett concert” and liberals as the Manson family. But he doesn’t push the comparison too far and drops it after an obvious punch line about killing “the pigs.”
For all his Bushwick bravado, Quinn saves his best bit for the end, when he humorously eulogizes the great Norm MacDonald as the ultimate small talker—it’s a bit sanctimonious but also humanizing in a way that Quinn usually doesn’t allow himself. It’s also the best kind of small talk.

The Sound of "Surge"

Dalia Stasevska conducts the New York Philharmonic performing world premiere of Wang Lu's "Surge". Photo by Chris Lee

At Lincoln Center’s superb David Geffen Hall, on the evening of Saturday, January 21st, I had the great privilege to attend a terrific concert presented by the New York Philharmonic—continuing an unusually strong season—under the splendid direction of Ukrainian conductor Dalia Stasevska, who leads the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

The program began auspiciously with contemporary Chinese composer Wang Lu’s impressively orchestrated, compelling Surge, heard here in a fully realized account, and receiving its world premiere with these performances. Wang, in a program note in the score, wrote:

With alarming new environmental and political challenges emerging all the time, there is an overwhelming sense of unforeseen surges of the unknown that permeate our lives. Yet there is also an irresistible sense of collective urgency to build on more complex perspectives that, though sometimes tumultuous, would tolerate bold and unique innovations.

With these thoughts in mind,Surgefrequently features full orchestral tutti moments, transforming them into colossal textures, shifting and mixing tone colors while amplifying a single theme throughout. Momentous rhythmic motives insistently drive the inexorable waves of orchestral layers forward towards abrupt shifts.

Program annotator Rebecca Winzenried provides some useful background on the work:

Surge was commissioned by the League of American Orchestras Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation Orchestral Commission Program, a consortium of 30 orchestras ranging from the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra to the Quad City Symphony in Iowa and the Portland Columbia Symphony in Oregon. Works by the six women composers engaged to contribute (who also include Anna Clyne, Sarah Gibson, Angel Lam, Gity Razaz, and Arlene Sierra) will each be performed by four consortium member orchestras, repeat performances that guarantee greater exposure than is often afforded to new works. Following the World Premiere by the NY Phil, Surge will be performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Des Moines Symphony, and at the Aspen Music Festival.

The beautiful and brilliant Georgian soloist, Lisa Batiashvili—who wore a fabulous, lacy, black gown—then entered the stage for a dazzling rendition of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s amazing Violin Concerto, which was inspired by Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole.The first movement is tuneful, bewitching and song-like but acquires a more dramatic character, although with incredibly stirring passages, reaching an exhilarating conclusion that elicited the audience’s applause. The ensuing slow movement is even more Russian in its melodies and it too is lyrical but with more melancholy inflections while the ebullient and dance-likefinaleis especially virtuosic, although with some subdued moments, but also closes thrillingly.

The second half of the evening was even stronger, consisting in a fully assured performance of Jean Sibelius’s magnificent Symphony No. 2. The suspenseful and turbulent initial movement is thoroughly Romantic with majestic climaxes. The evocative and mysterious slow movement is more restrained but ends forcefully and the third movement opens excitingly but its propulsion is arrested by quieter passages. The complex and moodyfinalebuilds to an exalting conclusion. The musicians received an enthusiastic ovation.

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